Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Counterrevolutionary's Long Road Home

On June 27, 77-year-old Ou Shu (欧树) woke up in the suburbs of Kunming, ate breakfast, changed into a brand-new navy suit, packed all of his worldly belongings into a small valise, and then traveled nearly four hours westward by car to Midu County, the birthplace he had not seen in more than half a century.

This was no ordinary homecoming for Ou Shu. Two police officers accompanied him on his journey to Midu, and the group was met on arrival by officials from the local police station. The frail man about to enter a local old-age home had just been released from Guandu Prison, after having spent his entire adult life behind bars as a “counterrevolutionary.”

On August 4, a team of reporters from Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis News and its sister paper in Kunming, the Yunnan Information News, published a lengthy feature article on Ou’s remarkable story, one that raises numerous questions about how China ought to treat its elderly and most disabled prisoners and highlights the impact of systemic discrimination against political prisoners in China.

In the Blink of an Eye, Four Years Turns to Life Imprisonment

Ou Shu was 20 years old in November 1953 when both he and his father were arrested on charges of being members of Yiguan Dao, a syncretic sect with roots in China’s long history of popular, millenarian religious movements. Soon after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, sectarian religious movements like Yiguan Dao were targeted as relics of China’s feudal past. Yiguan Dao was condemned in particular as being composed of individuals with bad class backgrounds who were suspected of being Nationalist agents.

Under the provisions of the 1951 “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China for the Punishment of Counterrevolutionaries,” sect members were subject to execution or life imprisonment, but Ou Shu was given a relatively light sentence of four years and sent to a “reform-through-labor” farm. At the end of those four years, however, he was accused of “resisting reform, playing ignorant, holding fast to reactionary positions, and having extremely antagonistic ideas”—a judgment that may have been influenced by the ongoing campaign against “rightists” going on throughout the country at the time—and given a 15-year sentence extension.

A year later, Ou was again accused of maintaining his reactionary beliefs, as well as theft, harassing women, and attempting escape. Sentenced this time to life in prison, he was transferred to a maximum-security facility on the outskirts of Kunming that primarily housed serious drug offenders, and it was there he would remain for almost 50 years.

Clemency Repeatedly Denied

There is evidence to suggest that some of the behavioral problems contributing to Ou Shu’s sentence extensions may be attributable to mental illness. Records show that the provincial psychiatric hospital diagnosed him with schizophrenia in both 1963 and 1972. “He lacks the expected awareness of his personal circumstances,” wrote one evaluation. “Despite being punished with repeated sentence extensions, he shows nonchalance and says that he’s here to play and have fun, He speaks incoherently and his syntax is extremely illogical, showing clear signs of disintegrated thinking.” There is no indication that Ou ever underwent any form of treatment for mental illness, but prison authorities appear to have taken his apparent instability into account and were more lenient in their subsequent assessments of his behavior.

In 1980, China adopted a formal criminal code. While “counterrevolutionary sect” activities remained outlawed, prisoners serving life sentences were given the opportunity to have their sentences reduced through sentence reduction and parole. In consideration of Ou’s long incarceration, prison authorities recommended that his sentence be commuted and that he be released. However, the provincial public security officials then in charge of managing penal institutions rejected the recommendation, a decision most likely colored by concerns that showing clemency for a counterrevolutionary prisoner could be politically dangerous.

In 1997, “counterrevolution” was removed from China’s Criminal Law and the Supreme People’s Court issued additional regulations governing the process of granting sentence reductions and parole. In 1999, prison authorities recommended that Ou Shu’s life sentence be reduced to a fixed-term sentence of 10 years, but the provincial high court took a more cautious approach and reduced his sentence to 18 years’ imprisonment—which meant that Ou would be due for release in 2017.

Without Family, No Medical Parole

In 2005, Ou was transferred to a prison cellblock dedicated for elderly and infirm prisoners. His remaining sentence was gradually being whittled down through small reductions every two years, but his physical and mental condition had deteriorated and a younger prisoner had to be assigned to care for him.
Ou Shu in 2010 (L) and at the time of his arrest, in 1953 (R)
In 2008, Ou was transferred to Guandu Prison, and authorities there considered him a good candidate for medical parole. But when they contacted the local police station back in his hometown, it was discovered that he had no living close relatives and thus, under the relevant procedures, could not be released. So he remained at Guandu Prison until a final sentence reduction in June 2010 brought an end to his long incarceration. Ou was finally a free man, but now what?

Authorities arranged for Ou to return home to Midu County and stay in an old-age home not far from the village where he grew up. At first, Ou seemed happy to return to familiar surroundings, but the sudden transition to freedom took a toll on him, and he became more and more senile and unable to care for himself. The director of the old age home sought out Ou’s distant relatives to see whether they would be willing to help take care of him, but they demurred. They had taken care of Ou’s father in his old age and had all assumed that Ou himself had been dead for years, even paying tribute to him each year during the Tomb Sweeping Festival.

The husband of an elderly cousin put it simply: “The government should have either released him earlier or kept him locked up until he died of old age. Releasing him now is a burden to both our family and to society.”

How Many More Prisoners Like Ou Shu?

According to Chen Xingliang, an expert on China’s criminal justice system, most individuals sentenced to life imprisonment actually wind up serving between 12 and 22 years in prison, with the average being about 15 years. Ou Shu’s experience may seem like an anomaly, but it is an anomaly that can nevertheless be understood in terms of fairly regular practices within China’s criminal justice system.

Ou Shu was branded as a political criminal at the age of 21, and the stigma of that charge had a lasting impact on his life. During the Maoist period, his erratic behavior was interpreted as evidence of his reactionary nature and danger to society, leading a four-year sentence to grow into life imprisonment. Even as China began taking steps to implement rule of law in the 1980s, the taint of being a “counterrevolutionary” served as an obstacle to gaining clemency. With political prisoners officially subject to “strict handling” for the purposes of sentence reduction and parole, prison authorities simply couldn’t reduce his time behind bars fast enough, and Ou was overtaken by the ailments of old age.

Prison authorities also ran into obstacles with the current medical parole regulations, which normally require family members to take responsibility for an ill prisoner before he or she may be released. Prisons in some provinces, such as Sichuan and Jiangxi, have been making more use of medical parole as a way to release elderly and sick prisoners who are no longer a threat to society, but these practices have come under some criticism in China over allegations that prison authorities are merely “dumping” these prisoners and shifting the burden of their care back to their families.

One wonders how many other prisoners like Ou Shu there might be in China. Members of “counterrevolutionary sects” were targeted again during the “Strike Hard” campaigns of the early 1980s and many were sentenced to life imprisonment. It is assumed that most have either been released or passed away, but there is no easy way to determine their fates without requesting an accounting from the Chinese government on a case-by-case basis.

In recent years, Dui Hua has highlighted some cases that, while not involving incarceration for more than 50 years, share many other similar features with that of Ou Shu:

Jiang Cunde was sentenced to life imprisonment for counterrevolution in 1987, diagnosed with schizophrenia and released on medical parole in 1993, but subsequently sent back to prison in 1999 for breaking the terms of his parole. His life sentence was commuted to a 20-year fixed-term sentence in 2004, but there has been no additional clemency since then despite acknowledgement that Jiang continues to suffer from psychotic episodes.

Two individuals originally sentenced to suspended death sentences for acts carried out during the June Fourth demonstrations in Beijing also remain behind bars under similar circumstances. Jiang Yaqun, aged 71, had his 1990 sentence for “counterrevolutionary sabotage” commuted to 19-1/2 years’ imprisonment in 1995. Described as suffering from “mild mental retardation” (most likely senility), Jiang has received several sentence reductions but still has more than three years left to serve. Miao Deshun’s 1989 sentence for arson was eventually commuted to 20 years’ imprisonment in 1998, but he has received no clemency since then. The 46-year-old Miao, who has been acknowledged to suffer from mental illness, is due for release in 2018—nearly 30 years after his arrest.

There are of course many other cases involving political prisoners serving comparatively shorter sentences who have been denied medical parole despite serious illness—Li Wangyang or Hu Jia, for example. Others like Wang Rongqing and Zhang Jianhong saw their medical conditions deteriorate to extreme states before being granted medical parole. The conclusion is stark: the humanitarian measure of medical parole is essentially beyond reach for most of China’s political prisoners.

It would thus be a mistake to see Ou Shu as an anomalous case of someone who simply “fell through the cracks.” He was the victim of a criminal justice system that arbitrarily employs political punishments and that continues to discriminate against those subjected to such punishments. Ou’s life is perhaps the most extreme consequence of this situation, but he is by no means the only such victim. ■

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